The UK had TV programmes about Madagascar in the months before we left which could have left the impression that it is a green island with much wildlife. The latter is certainly true but flying over it reveals the Red Island with clear evidence of the deforestation that has happened since the first settlers arrived and the silted-up rivers in the dry season. We landed in sunshine and were taken to our hotel to meet up with our group. The island has been separated from Gondwanaland for millions of years and over 90% of the wildlife are endemic and not found anywhere else. It is the fourth largest island in world but also the fifth poorest nation. We left Antananarivo on a Sunday morning via RN 2 which was still busy with a lot of trucks as it is the main route to the port of Toamasina. There is also a railway line (narrow gauge and dating from the 1930s) which is only for freight. The most common form of transport for passengers is the taxi-brousse; a minibus with luggage piled on the roof.
Just outside the city centre brick making and laundry were being carried out by the River Ikopa: scenes which would be re-visited all over the highlands.
Occasionally, it looked as if all the fabrics in a home including curtains and carpets were being washed. Our guide told us that when someone has died, all the fabrics in the home are washed to remove the evil spirits/death. This tradition is less frequently practised now. We had a distant view of Tana with the Queen’s Palace and the first church on the hill.
Further on near Moramanga was this sign:
The Malagasy Uprising was a nationalist rebellion against French colonial rule in Madagascar and lasted from March 1947 to February 1949. Political efforts to achieve independence for Madagascar had failed and spurred on radicalised elements of the Malagasy population, including the leaders of some militant nationalist secret societies. On the evening of 29 March 1947, coordinated surprise attacks were launched by Malagasy nationalists, armed mainly with spears, against military bases and French-owned plantations in the eastern part of the island concentrated around Moramanga and Manakara. In May 1947 the the French began to counter the nationalists. They increased the number of troops on the island to 18,000, mostly by transferring soldiers from French colonies elsewhere in Africa. The French military forces carried out mass execution, torture, war rape, torching of entire villages, collective punishment and other atrocities such as throwing live Malagasy prisoners out of an airplane (death flights). The mausoleum is on the site where more than 120 nationalists were executed. Before we reached Andasibe, we stopped at Peyrieras Reserve which cares for amphibians and reptiles. They have Nile Crocodiles and a number of lizards and geckos I am in the process of identifying.
Later in our trip, we saw some of them in the wild. After a night in Andasibe, we hiked around four miles in the nearby National Park which preserves some of the 1% of the original forest that remains. In the rainforest it rained, heavily at times, leading to some of the park guides saying that this did not usually happen until November. October is usually dry and hot. We saw the five species of lemur in the park but I did not get photographs of them all.
The Indri is the largest and its call can be heard 2km away.
We also saw several species of birds, most of which flew around too quickly to photograph. One notable tree is the Travellers’ Palm which acquired its name due to the collection of water where each leaf meets the stem, providing a drink in hot weather.
In the afternoon we visited Vakona Reserve which comprises Lemur Island and a crocodile reserve. It is owned by a French national who came to work in the now defunct graphite mine. He then set up the reserves which provide rescue for lemurs sold as pets (hence they are habituated to humans) and has one lodge in operation and another being built.
We returned to our hotel as we had an early start the next morning.
On Monday we awoke to a wet and dull day. It was too wet for the forest walks in the hills above Tain, so we decided to explore the Tarbat Peninsula. A minor road from Tain passes a disused airfield and a moor which is still designated a military bombing site. During World War Two, many of the villagers of Portmahomack were evacuated so that landing exercises in preparation for D Day could be carried out. The village was quiet when we reached it. Its name means the Port of St Colman, an early Christian saint.
The Discovery Centre is based in the old church and covers the area history from the Picts to more recent events. Many of the local archaeological finds are displayed. The church is dedicated to 7th century St Colman and has had many incarnations from the earliest monastery and Pictish church to the Church of Scotland. In 1948 it ceased to operate as a church.
In the old churchyard is a baptismal well. It is said to have been sanctified by St Rule on his way to St Andrews and is still used to baptise the eldest son of the Earls of Cromartie to this day.
A statue entitled ‘The Pictish Queen’ sculpted by Leonie Gibbs sits near the church.
Quite a few of the local towns have a cast iron fountain dating from the second half of the 19th century when piped water reached the community. Portmahomack also has an old streetlamp dating from 1900. It is one of the first erected which used paraffin. They were extinguished during the First World War but electric light did not arrive until 1949.
Before we left the village I noticed a house on the shore. I have seen gardens with gnomes in before but these were all ensconced inside.
Three miles beyond Portmahomack is Tarbat Ness with its lighthouse. There is a walk from the village I had found on the Walkhighlands website and might have done it in better weather. The area on the Ness is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is visited by birds migrating from Scandinavia. The lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1840 and at 40 metres, is the third tallest in Scotland.
When we arrived, a robot was mowing the lawn: some modernity in the midst of all the history.
The path continues to the end of the peninsula
and we saw one seal briefly. The stone stackers have also been here at some point. Returning to Tain, we joined the A9, crossed the Dornoch Firth
and entered Sutherland. Before reaching Dornoch we also crossed the River Evelix. Dornoch Cathedral is Scotland’s smallest and was built by Gilbert de Moravia who became bishop, beginning in 1224. Two hundred years later, a Bishop’s Palace or Castle was built and is now a hotel. There is a crowd-funded distillery start-up there. We could not see inside the cathedral as a funeral was in progress.
However, we did have a browse in the nearby independent bookshop:
Afterwards we took a minor road north out of town and then along the south shore of Loch Fleet which is a National Nature Reserve. We paused just after the ruins of Skelbo Castle
spotting a grey heron and a curlew in the distance.
Back on the A9 the cloud was low. Near to The Mound, there was a ‘Caution Otters’ sign and hordes of people were down by the bridge looking for them, so we carried on passing through Golspie and Brora. We had previously visited Dunrobin Castle and Clynelish Distillery so pressed on to our destination for the night: Helmsdale. The rain had eased when we arrive there so we had a short walk around up to the Telford Bridge and the old harbour. The town has been a port since 1527 but the first harbour was not constructed until 1818. In 1832 a fishing boat brought cholera to the town but it was rescued from decline when other fleets brought herring in.
Timespan is the heritage and arts centre.
Before dinner we walked down to the modern harbour where sea birds were lined up on a wall as the tide came in.
The following day we were back on the A9, entering Caithness north of Helmsdale. A little further along is the site of the abandoned village of Badbea. People were moved during the clearances in the early 1800s when landowners decided that the glens where most people lived would be better places for sheep farms. Some people were living at Badbea in 1793 but most arrived in 1802 when Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster decided that Ousedale, a fertile glen on his Langdale Estate required clearing for sheep farming. He tried to encourage people to engage in the coastal industries. At least twelve families lived at Badbea. It is said that the winds on the cliffs were so strong that animals and even children had to be roped together to prevent them from being blown over the cliffs. Eventually it became impossible to continue and people left; the last resident departing in 1911. The short walk from the carpark leads to a memorial and the remains of a few homes.
After coffee at the River Bothy in Berriedale (where the mobile library was parked up outside) it was time to head north. The next stop was Dunbeath. Very little remains of the monastery which once sat slightly upriver from the village. It was washed away in the 18th century. There is a heritage trail which goes along the river and up a hill to a broch and some old stones.
The village street was constructed between 1840 and 1850. One of my friends from Aberdeen University told me that her grandfather worked at the mill by the old bridge. Just outside it we met an elderly man who remembered him.
Neil Gunn the author was born in Dunbeath in 1891. I read his books many years ago. There is a memorial sculpture down at the harbour.
Looking across the water there is a cave accessible at low tide and the castle which is not open to the public.
Back on the A9 we took the A99 to Wick at Latheron passing through Lybster, Ulbster and Thrumpster. The coast is littered with ancient remains of brochs, castles, cairns and standing stones. There are also the ruins of abandoned crofts and large wind farms stand offshore. Soon we were settled into our riverside campsite.
On another sunny day we set off from Rosemarkie up the Fairy Glen to join the road to Cromarty. It is a village sited between the Sutors, the two headlands one mile apart at the entrance to the bay. We parked by the shore where dozens of kayakers were arriving and getting ready to enter the water. The Stevenson lighthouse built in 1846 is now a Field Station for Aberdeen University marine biologists.
A small ferry runs across to Nigg on the other side during the summer months.
A monument on the shoreline is a memorial to all those who emigrated to North America after the clearances. It lists the names of the ships. Most of the buildings in Cromarty are 18th or 19th century. 13 sites have connections to slave plantations, mostly in Guyana and many of the merchants are buried in the cemetery here. Slavery is something Scotland has been late to acknowledge. There is no Museum of Slavery in Scotland while several English cities have one. In 2018 the University of Glasgow announced it was paying £20 million in reparation for donations derived from slavery merchants. George Ross, a businessman, bought Cromarty in 1772 investing in a harbour, hemp works, brewery, nail works, a lace-making school, stable and a hog yard for pigs. The hemp was imported from St Petersburg and the factory produced bags and sacks for West Indian goods. He built the Gaelic chapel in 1784 for the influx of Gaelic speakers into the town. Cromarty was one of the towns that made so much money from the slave trade that it petitioned against abolition. Perhaps the most famous son of Cromarty was Hugh Miller, a self-taught geologist, naturalist, writer and florist born in 1802. The house he was born in and the one he lived in are now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland but were closed at the time we visited.
He died in Edinburgh in 1856. There is a trail around the important places in the town, including his statue. The oldest building in the town still standing is Townslands Barn built in 1690 for Bernard Mckenzie. In the early 19th century it was converted to a threshing barn and latterly for agricultural storage. It is Grade A listed and was acquired by the community in 2018 who hope to be able to raise funds and restore it for some future use.
We had coffee at the Emporium which in addition to having a small café, sells new and used books, gifts and postcards.
Afterwards we continued along the north shore of the Black Isle, passing through Jemimaville and then stopping at the RSPB Udale Bay Reserve. Many migrating birds stop here to feed. We saw Canada and Pink-footed Geese and other birds in the distance. In the logbook someone in earlier in the day had seen an osprey feeding.
After crossing the Cromarty Firth, we stopped at Tain for supplies and as we were too early to check in to the campsite, had a look at the first item on the Pictish Trail. The Edderton Cross-Slab is a stone dating from the 9th century with a Celtic Cross and three horsemen: it is not certain who they are. Other fragments of stone are inside the old church which is only open at certain times. The Pictish Trail runs from Edderton to Altnaharra and visits 13 sites.
After checking in we needed a walk. The site sits between the A9 near the Dornoch Firth Bridge, the train line (and former station now a house) and just beside it runs a minor road down to Meikle Ferry Point. Cattle were grazing in the fields around the bay and looked at us curiously wondering who we were.
The passenger ferry ceased to run when the bridge opened in 1991. Prior to this vehicles had to drive to Bonar Bridge to cross the Firth. There are now houses at the tip of the point but the old piers on the south and north shore are still visible.
We have to be off the site by 10am tomorrow to continue our journey north.
The Isle of May lies in the Firth of Forth, just under 5 miles off the coast. We had seen it from the Fife coast in April and as we had never been there before, decided to fit in a visit as soon as we could. The island is only about 1 mile long and about 1/3 mile wide. It is owned and managed by Scottish National Heritage as a National Nature Reserve. The history varies a little as some say St Adrian and a number of followers settled on the island but were slain by the Danes in 875. The information provided by Scottish National Heritage concurs with those who say that Saint Ethernan ministered to the Picts of Fife from the island and died and was buried there in 669AD. A small stone church was built around 900AD to replace the previous timber one. Many pilgrims were buried in stone-lined cists between 600-1000AD. Around 1145 King David I founded a monastery with 13 Benedictine monks who built a bigger church and apparently introduced rabbits to the island. During the wars of independence in the 14th century the monastery was exposed to raiding warships and was abandoned by all but one monk. In 1550 the island was sold and a laird’s tower house was built from the remains of the priory. The village consisting of fishermen and their families lasted into the 18th century; the last villager being buried there in 1730. A considerable amount of smuggling went on and it was also a good place to hide from press gangs trying to find naval recruits. A boat runs trips from Anstruther, you can also take an open rubber speedboat from there or from North Berwick passing the Bass Rock en route. We took the Anstruther boat which takes about an hour to make the crossing (spotting a few grey seals) before mooring in Kirkhaven. You then have around two and half hours to explore before the return trip.
The path from the pier to the visitor’s centre and the rest of the island passes through an Artic Tern nesting site. I got dive-bombed twice even though I tried to be as unthreatening as possible.
We first took Holyman’s Road across the East Braes towards Rona and North Ness. The latter are restricted areas for wildlife only. The path runs through puffin burrows; 120,000 are on the island between April and August each year. I have never seen so many in one location.
and past the now disused Low Light which is a bird observatory. It was in use as a lighthouse from 1844 until 1887. We could see the North Horn.
The Beacon was the first Scottish Lighthouse in 1636 with a coal fire in a metal basket burning on top of the keeper’s house.
It was lit for the last time on 31st January. The island was by then owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board who commissioned Robert Stevenson to build the 24m high Main Light in 1816. It was automated in 1989.
The South Horn was built in 1886 and the North Horn in 1938. Heading south again we passed the loch where you can sometimes see
Eider Ducks and Fluke Street where the bird researchers live.
We then passed the ruins of the priory.
At the south end of the island view points overlook the cliffs where there are puffins, guillemots, shags, fulmars, razorbills and kittiwakes and gulls.
All too soon it was time to return to the boat and it began to rain as we boarded. The return journey took us round the other side of the island past cliffs covered with birds and a rock formation called The Bishop.
We then said goodbye to the Isle of May.
Ever since we walked the Speyside Way in 2012, I have wanted to return and explore Spey Bay more. The campsite here is run by the local golf club. The last time we saw it there was nothing between it and the sea but there are now several new houses between the golf course and the beach with another section yet to be completed. This may have been where the old hotel was situated. In World War II troops were based in the Richmond and Gordon Hotel here and an airfield was built nearby at Nether Dallachy. The hotel burnt down in 1965 and a replacement was built but is no longer here. Spey Bay has Scotland’s largest shingle beach. It is situated on the eastern side of the estuary opposite Kingston on the west. We arrived late afternoon and the after the showers ceased, had a wander on the beach.
Later I returned to see the Summer Solstice sunset.
On most other beaches there are notices asking you not to remove stones but there are none here and in the morning, I saw some people filling large shopping bags.
You can sometimes see Bottlenose Dolphins and whales offshore but today all I could see were birds. At least the crazes for padlocks on bridges and stacking rocks does not seem to have made it here yet. Salmon fishing has probably carried out on the River Spey since prehistoric times. In 1768 a fishing station was built at Tugnet but all that remains are the ice-houses built in 1830, the largest surviving in the UK. Only a third is visible above ground.
The fish were stored here before being shipped out. The last salmon was landed in 1991 and the nearby building is now the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society’s Scottish Dolphin Centre. A local high school project begun in 1988 and completed in 1991 with sponsorship and assistance from local sculptors and stone masons created a number of mosaics and some sculptures.
Across the river is a nature reserve. We saw a heron, swans and various ducks from the opposite bank.
We walked down the section of the Speyside Way to the viaduct (another remnant of the Beeching cuts) and into Garmouth on the other bank.
The Speyside Coffee Roasting Company is based in the local hotel – they roast the Brazilian beans and grind as required. It certainly tasted good and I bought some to take home. We also spotted an information board for the circular 95-mile Moray Way. It is comprised of some of the Speyside Way, the Moray Coast Trail and the Deva Way. It might be on for us to do at some point. As we turned to return to the campsite it was getting more overcast.
Leaving Fraserburgh we took the B road coastal trail through Sandhaven and Pitulie which are contiguous and Rosehearty. My copy of The Fabled Coast describes some of the fishermen’s customs and superstitions in the area. These include naming certain kinds of wave and believing that a breeze could be raised by a sailor whistling or scratching the mast with a finger nail. Stormy weather in Rosehearty was said to be brought on by marriage so weddings took place at the end of the herring season. Certain items were not to be brought onto ships for fear of adversely affecting the weather e.g. eggs because witches were believed to use eggshells as boats. Just out of town is Mounthooly Doocot. It was built by a local estate owner in 1800 to house pigeons for meat and eggs.
Nearby is a mound called Gallows Hill and the Hanging Stone. We diverted along a single-track road down to Aberdour Beach.
It has sandstone cliffs with caves, some of which look through to the sea. Fortunately, it was low tide so we could explore them.
There is a memorial to Jane Whyte, a farm servant’s wife. In December 1884, a steamer left Fraserburgh heading for Burghead. Adverse weather conditions led to the captain having to run the ship aground in Aberdour Bay. Jane Whyte saw the boat and realized that the men would have difficulty getting ashore. She waded out to the boat, caught a rope thrown to her and tying it round her waist, belayed the 15 men to shore one at a time. She sheltered them in her home and with the help of the local minister, they returned home the next day. Later she received the RNLI Silver Medal for Gallantry. Close to the sea are the ruins of St Drostan’s church which was founded in 580AD making it one of the earliest in Scotland. Just above the beach is St Drostan’s Well. East of the beach is a remnant of the old castle. New Aberdour is a 19th century planned village inland. Further on is Pennan harbour and a house called ‘The Old Doctor’s House’. There is a RSPB reserve at Troup Head which has Scotland’s only mainland gannet colony as well as fulmers, kittiwakes, guillemots and razor bills.
After the small village of Crovie is Gardenstown. It has been a fishing town situated amongst the sandstone cliffs for centuries. In 1900 it had 92 boats fishing for herring and salmon. Most of the community was involved in fishing with boats being handed down to subsequent generations. Later on, fishing boats became larger and the trade moved to bigger ports. The workers and their families continued to live there and after a lull in the 1980s and 90s, leisure fishing has now increased and also smaller fishing boats and others. We parked beyond the harbour where there was some street art.
Walking through to the harbour, some just completed street art was on the wall of a building soon to open as a café. I had a chat with the artist and café owner.
On the hillside above the town in Gamrie, lie the ruins of St John’s Church and graveyard. It was probably founded in 1004 and granted to the monks of Arbroath Abbey from 1189-1198. It was renovated in the 17th century and abandoned in 1830 when a new church was built in Gardenstown.
We noticed that several of the houses down near the harbour were for sale but new ones were being built further up the hill. When I was at medical school Gardenstown, with its then rather isolated community was renowned for having a high incidence of Menkes disease, also known as Menkes syndrome. It is an X-linked recessive disorder caused by mutations in genes coding for the copper-transport protein ATP7A, leading to copper deficiency. Characteristic findings of the disorder include kinky hair, growth failure, and nervous system deterioration. Today I saw one local with kinky hair but I suspect that the community is now more genetically diverse and that this is less of a problem. We continued along the coastal trail to Macduff and Banff which sit on opposite banks at the mouth of the River Deveron. Macduff was the last place to build deep-water wooden fishing boats. Our campsite is right on Inverboyndie Beach, so I had a beach walk in between showers.
The ships we had seen at Gardenstown had followed us and were now moored in Boyndie Bay. I spotted some pink seaweed
…and some that might become an abstract painting.
Tomorrow we continue our journey westward.
We left Stonehaven on a morning too wet to explore the ruins of the old chapel on the cliffs. Closer to Aberdeen we left the A92 and took a minor road around the coast. We passed a rare breeds farm near Doonies Hill.
Major works are underway to expand the harbour in Aberdeen and piles of the of concrete blocks were by the shore. We passed the ruined St Fittick’s Church but were diverted from following the road past the lighthouse and around the point. Further on we could back-track and sat for a while watching ships waiting to enter the harbour.
Over the Bridge of Dee, we drove up the beach front and managed a walk after the rain had stopped. I found a good haul of sea glass.
After crossing the River Don, we diverted to Scotstown Moor Nature Reserve which is also known as Perwinnes Moss.
We then spent the night with friends who live in the Aberdeenshire countryside and returned to the coastal route in the morning. There is a huge new conference centre being built near Dyce and the airport. The older one is in Bridge of Don and is to be closed. Before the rain returned, we had a walk on Balmedie Beach which I remembered from my student days. It is now a country park.
Height barriers prevented us parking by Forvie National Nature Reserve or on the car parks on the banks of the River Ythan. Instead, we diverted down a B road to Collieston and Kirkton of Slain, former fishing communities. There are many caves and small coves along the shore which were used for smuggling foreign spirits in the 18th century to avoid paying taxes. There is a coastal path along to Cruden Bay. The pier was constructed in the late 19th century and renovated in the 1950s.
Sand martins were flying around, eider ducks on the water and gulls perching on the rocks. There were steps up to a viewpoint and paths round to the small harbour and café.
Before we arrived in Cruden Bay, we passed the rather impressive St James’s Church on Chapel Hill and then drove through the village to the Brit Stop at Port Erroll harbour where we celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary.
In the morning we had a quiet walk through woodland onto the cliffs and the ruined Slains Castle. It was built in the 16th century by the Earl of Errol, the previous old Slains Castle having been destroyed by James VI after the Earl of Errol supported a plot against him. In 1597 the Earl returned from exile and began to construct the tower house. It was extended in 1664 and again in 1836. In 1916 the 20th Earl sold it in lieu of death duties and the owner let it become ruined. The roof was removed in 1925 for the materials to be used elsewhere. Bram Stoker is said to have stayed in the castle and used it as inspiration for his Dracula story. Other famous visitors were Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.
We met a few dog walkers en route. Re-joining the A90 the road continues to Peterhead. However, we had a small diversion through Boddam to the harbour and Buchan Ness Lighthouse.
On the way into Peterhead the road passes HMP & YOI Grampian. The old prison which operated from 1888 to 2013 became a museum in 2016. Peterhead prison was known as Scotland’s roughest and there were many notorious escapes and riots, some of which I remember hearing about in the news. The old prison building came into being because in the late 19th century the government decided that a harbour needed constructing on the north coast of Scotland. Peterhead was chosen and granite from a nearby quarry was to be used. A cost-cutting exercise decided that convicts would provide the labour for this breakwater. It took 78 years to build and the prisoners were transported to the quarry in a purpose-built railway, the first state-owned one in Britain. In 1956 both the quarry and railway ceased to operate.
Before we left the town, we wandered around the centre, noticing that it had as many closed shops as other towns in the UK. In the 1970s Peterhead had become an oil industry service centre and had a gas terminal but more recently many companies have left. Fishing remains important. We escaped from the town to relax in the countryside before beginning the journey home. We completed 247 miles on this leg bringing the total so far to 338.